Thursday, 25 June 2015

Good For The Soul

If horseracing were a religion, the congregation at Cartmel would undoubtedly be classed as evangelistic: colourful, loud and enthusiastic about sharing the faith. Cartmel racegoers are a broad church, quite liberal in outlook, yet strongly attached to age-old traditions.  

Cartmel is a fertile seed-bed for the racing industry’s young enthusiasts. Although, like every dedicated gardener, we have to be tend our plot with care if we want our plants to grow. That’s just one reason why our new 2-day June meeting is so important. 

The seed that falls on stony soil may spring up quickly in the sunshine (we hope there will be sunshine), but then wither and die if it has no roots. To help develop racing-roots we are providing the youngest racegoers on Sunday with a special racecard of their own – one which reduces the complexity of the information and presents it in a simpler, funnier style. Many adults have commented that they prefer the under-10’s version.  

Seed that falls amongst thorns may grow up and be strangled by the weeds. We mustn’t abandon our young racing enthusiasts to the unscrupulous – which is why we have invited more than 60 children, from a local primary school in Barrow-in-Furness, to come and learn about horseracing (as well as practise their mathematical, English, sporting and design skills) under the guidance of the British Horseracing Education & Standards Trust on Friday. 

And the seed that falls on good ground (ours is currently good-to-firm, good in places – but we’re expecting a drop of rain overnight) will produce a good crop, providing a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.

That is what we hope to achieve: that everyone who comes and enjoys a good day at Cartmel (hopefully enjoying the sight of 152 rated hurdler Court Minstrel, our Sunday selection), will return with a hundred friends, on sixty race-days, at thirty different racecourses in the future.  

There will be some people that wonder if the worlds of racing and Christianity are vaguely incompatible – mutually exclusive even (for those children that have recently completed their Maths GCSEs). But we shouldn’t forget that it was the monks, based at Cartmel Priory, that originally started the racing here – or that one of our most cherished events is the Steeplechase Service in August, where Nick Devenish will bless a Thoroughbred racehorse at the porch of the Priory. 

Nick, who is the Racecourse Chaplain, as well as the Vicar of the Priory, will be hotfooting between the Church (Communion Service at 11.00am) to the racecourse on Sunday – where he will say a short prayer for the races from within the Winners’ Enclosure. What’s good for the soul is good for racing and hopefully vice versa – so please don’t forget that you will be very welcome to join him at both venues.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Midsummer Madness

In Austria, fantastically decorated ships parade down the Danube to the accompaniment of fireworks; in Poland young people jump through flaming bonfires; in Britain we eat strawberries, read plays by William Shakespeare and dream about love – because as the entire World knows: Midsummer is a time for magic.  

The Summer Solstice occurs when the northern hemisphere is tilted as far towards the Sun as it will go. Between 20th June and 25th June the days are at their longest and the period has long been celebrated for a host of different reasons. Is it coincidence, for example, that while the Slavic nations are performing fertility rites at the end of the third week in June, we are making cups of tea on, what we call, Fathers Day?  

Despite some warm spells in May, we’ve had a curiously slow Spring and early Summer. This time last year, I was able to pluck a rose from the garden to wear in my buttonhole at Royal Ascot - even though it wilted horribly before the second race had been run. This year the roses are barely even budding, but we still have a terrific display of foxgloves… 

Which is handy because, as everyone knows, the flowers of the foxglove make an excellent hiding place for fairies – and fairies are very busy at this time of year. In the woods near Athens, they are frantically helping young couples to fall in love; here at Cartmel they are assisting in preparations for the races on Friday 26th and Sunday 28th June. 

The ticket fairies are particularly hectic just now – packing up the admission-badges and putting them in the post-box. The chief ticket-fairy has asked me to remind you that the deadline for advance bookings closes at midnight on Sunday 21st June. There will of course be tickets available on the day too – but the advance ones are a little bit cheaper and come packed with a sprinkling of magical fairy dust which will help you to find winners. 

The fairies have also been at work in the offices at Racing UK – befuddling the executives to such an extent that they are promoting a completely crazy deal: Sign up as a new customer before 20th June – and they will give you a free trial for one month.

Google the offer online now (or call 0845 111 6444 and quote RUK1MF); you’ll be able to watch the end of the Royal Ascot meeting (look out for Teak, a previous winner at Cartmel and our selection for the Queen Alexandra Stakes on Saturday), our two-day June meeting, plus our 2-day July meeting, absolutely free of charge.

There’s loads of other stuff too: tips, trends, news and reviews; so when you’ve enjoyed all the magic of an (almost) midsummer day at Cartmel races, you can watch the highlights again when you get home – and thank the fairies (and / or the Racing UK pundits) for helping you to beat the bookies.

Friday, 12 June 2015

It's a Travelling Circus

From Salisbury to Beverly; from Newton Abbot to Cartmel, racing is often described as a travelling circus. Which is appropriate, because it just so happens that a real circus will be turning up at our next race-meeting: the Big Top Races on Friday 26th June and Sunday 28th June. 

In addition to performances before and after racing, the Festival Circus will be organising workshops for kids (including big kids up to the age of 91) throughout the afternoon. All of the entertainment is included within the race-day admission price.

And on Saturday, when there is no racing, we’ll be opening up the Course Enclosure during the afternoon, so that anyone can roll-up and enjoy the performances in the Big Top as well as the fairground rides, trade-stands and catering outlets. Admission to the racecourse on Saturday will be free, although there will be a charge of £5 per adult for the circus performances.  

Just like the cast of characters in horseracing, the circus troupe consists of a variety of individuals – each with a range of peculiar skills. So in place of jockeys, think acrobats; for trainers, think jugglers; and instead of racecourse managers, think clowns. In a Big Top, packed with talent, there will also be funambulists, aerial artists and a man who specialises in hand-balancing (not quite sure what that means – but come along and we’ll find out together). 

On race-days, our big name performers are supported by a travelling team of technicians including: stable staff, jockeys’ valets, tote staff, bookmakers, stewards, starters, judges, cameramen and journalists. Working their way around the country, you’re likely to see the same faces at Bath on one day as you’ll encounter at Yarmouth the next. The venue might be different, but the racing-team pulls together to put on a new performance for a fresh audience.

For racegoers at smaller tracks, this makes for a unique experience - there are few other sports where you can walk up to one of the leading participants and pose for a selfie or ask for an autograph on virtually any day of the week. 

Following their Derby victory with Golden Horn last Saturday, both Frankie Dettori and John Gosden were in action just three hours later at Lingfield Park. Frankie rode the winner of the 7.30pm (a Class 5 Maiden), riding for William Haggas who had earlier been responsible for the Derby-third, Storm The Stars. Who trained the second? John Gosden: Same performers, different show.      

The Ring Master on race-days – the person who orchestrates all of the action on the track – is known as the Clerk of the Course. This week our Clerk of the Course, Anthea Morshead, is in action at York where they don’t even have any obstacles (which hardly seems worthy of a drum-roll, let alone a fanfare), although I am assured that the horses go very fast indeed and the track facilities are superb. 

The one that I’m hoping will be running fastest of all is Pearl Castle in the 2.00pm on Saturday. Victorious in this very same contest last year, Pearl Castle will be accompanied in the lady amateurs’ race by Serena Brotherton. Together, you can expect them to be topping the bill!          

Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Murder Is Out - Again!

Imagine the story: a group of punters hire a private trainer and set up a racing-stable shrouded in secrecy. They win all the top handicap races that Flat Racing has to offer, make the equivalent of tens of millions of pounds through gambling and then win the Epsom Derby with a 100/1 shot. 

Does that sound implausible to you? Well it happened just over 100 years ago – and the entire episode is described, in thrilling detail, in a book called The Druid’s Lodge Confederacy. First published in 1990, the book arrived at a formative time in my racing development - whilst still a student, bunking off lectures to watch racing at Colwick Park in Nottingham. 

In those days, I worked the Summers at a Ladbrokes betting shop in Loughborough, dreaming that one day I might turn up on the other side of the counter requesting a massive pay-out following a colossal covert gamble. Some things never change. 

Every racing enthusiast should own a copy of The Druid’s Lodge Confederacy; probably all non-racing enthusiasts too. It isn’t just a great book about horseracing, it is a superbly atmospheric account of life at the turn of the previous century.

There is a lovely description of the moment when Hacklers Pride stepped out on to the turf at Newmarket, prior to winning the Cambridgshire. The horse’s true form had been well obscured from the public, who were subjected to streams of dis-information as the confederates’ money was piled on to the horse, in small amounts, through a wide number of illegal channels (there were no high-street betting shops at that time). Finally, when the fully fit Hackler's Pride came into view, the whole world could see the truth: she was a certainty. As Mathieu puts it: The murder was out

The book has just been reprinted; which is fortunate because I have long-ceased lending my own copy since my mother dropped it in the bath. The text has been updated to include contemporary valuations for the sums of money wagered and won. But the stories remain unchanged – including the fascinating circumstances of the 1913 Derby, when Emily Davison threw herself in front of the King’s horse (Anmer), while the stewards disqualified Craganour and promoted the 100/1 chance Aboyeur to the winner’s spot. 

There hasn’t been a 100/1 winner of the Derby since; in fact the biggest winning odds in the last forty years were for High Rise who won at 20/1 in 1998. If you’re looking for a repeat this year, you could do worse than back Storm The Stars each-way at 20/1. However, the most likely winner of this year’s Derby is the 6/4 favourite, Golden Horn, who won the Dante Stakes at York in a very good time.